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Neuroaesthetic Research Probes Link Between Art, Perception, and the Self

by Allison Meier on January 23, 2014

Richard Bergh, "After the Sitting" (1884), oil on canvas (via Malö Konstmuseum/Google Art Project)

Richard Bergh, “After the Sitting” (1884), oil on canvas (via Malö Konstmuseum/Google Art Project)

When you look at a painting and feel that somehow it was made just for a person like you, it might actually be true. New neuroscience research shows that deep feeling of personal resonance from some works of art is linked to your brain’s sense of self.

As Pacific Standard has reported, research published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Neuroscience  (the full text is here) examines how the brain’s default mode network (DMN), usually inactive when you are engaged with the outside world, responds to these particular works of art that especially move you. Since the DMN is connected to introspection and the self, this could mean that the feeling that a work of art is intensely personal is activating parts of our brain very much associated with personal identities.

Led by Edward Vessel at New York University’s Center for Brain Imaging, who focuses on visual experiences and the brain, the research team tested 16 participants with 109 two-dimensional artworks ranging from the 15th to 20th century, sourced from museum collections. It was important to the researchers that these works not be widely published, so there wouldn’t be prior experiences with the art. The subjects, put in fMRI scanners, were told: “The paintings may cover the entire range from ‘beautiful’ to ‘strange’ or even ‘ugly.’ Respond on the basis of how much this image moves you.”

Despite the small group of subjects, there were several works that were hated by some, loved by others, the DMN remaining dormant or activating accordingly. “Although our task had no explicit self-referential aspect and the stimuli had no a priori self-relevance to the observers, the experimental design we employed emphasized the personal aspects of aesthetic experience,” they stated in their research. The results brought them to this conclusion:

“We propose that certain artworks can ‘resonate’ with an individual’s sense of self in a manner that has well-defined physiological correlates and consequences: the neural representations of those external stimuli obtain access to the neural substrates and processes concerned with the self — namely to regions of the DMN. This access, which other external stimuli normally do not obtain, allows the representation of the artwork to interact with the neural processes related to the self, affect them, and possibly even be incorporated into them (i.e., into the future, evolving representation of self).”

Lithograph of the brain (via Wellcome Library)

Lithograph of the brain (via Wellcome Library)

In simpler terms, art that you have an intense relationship to can be having a very real influence on your sense of self that no other external influences have. And it might even have an influence on your personal identity in the future. So if you’re walking through a museum, and a painting gives you a startling pause, something in your brain may indeed just have gotten a jolt in a very deep way.

Next month, Vessel and other researchers on “neuroaesthetics” — an area of neuroscience looking particularly at art and the brain — are presenting at the The Default Mode Network in Aesthetics and Creativity symposium at the Italian Academy at Columbia University. The research on the brain and art may be reaching into fascinating new realms, although even the researchers admit they still can’t define concretely the personal pull in particular art, but “our results suggest that the strong effect of certain artworks can be understood in terms of the physiological state they generate and how this state is experienced, or interpreted, by the observer.”

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  • Linda Kemper Harbison

    “Despite the small group of subjects, there were several works that were hated by some, loathed by others…”

    I wonder if this is a typo, since “hated” and “loathed” pretty much mean the same thing.

    • Allison C. Meier

      Right you are! Homonyms strike again, good catch.

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